Is social gaming really that new?

In a recent discussion regarding the growth of so called social gaming it was suggested that gaming isn’t all about people sat in darkened rooms sat playing games by themselves.

Whilst I do agree that the likes of FarmVille have provided a much more accessible form of gaming and tying into the social networking sites does appeal to new markets but does that really make the games more social? Or more to the point, are the games of a decade ago and before really that anti-social?

To try and answer that you really need to define what we mean by social. My personal interpretation is that being social within a game involves interacting with other players, either competitively or more preferable co-operatively. In my view it is about making friends, forming bonds and rivalries as well as sharing and collaborating. When it is put that way, is it really true that games are more social than before?

The emergence of online play obviously has had a major impact, but that isn’t something new over the past few years. Yes, broadband speeds are improving and nearly everyone is fully online but 10 years ago I was playing online games. I’ve been in clans for seven or eight years now and in all the gaming I’ve encountered, it is by far the most social. Through forums, MSN and other chat clients I get to know my fellow clan members, becoming friends. Rivalries with other players and clans also develop as a result of matches or simply the competitive nature of the games and individuals. Voice communications, or just in game text chat, allow for real time communication from banter between teams to coordination and teamwork. In my article discussing the online play for Delta Force: Black Hawk Down I pointed out that what made me become so immersed was the community, the social aspect of playing.

Many modern FPS titles lack the communication, particularly on consoles, with clans using their own VOIP for communication. The massive growth of gaming, in particular consoles, no doubt has had an impact here as well. Rather than banter and joking between players, often communication is flaming, accusations and about e-peen followed by rage quitting. Perhaps this change has clouded the fact that online gaming has been social for many a year.

We cant forget the MMO genre either. Even 10 years ago there were popular MMOs with players working together in quests and building friendships by forming guilds. Of course many people play these game too much and they don’t need to be played alongside other players, which for sure is anti-social behaviour, but how can you deny that social gameplay was not there?

To be honest, Facebook games such as CityVille are less social than WoW or Left4Dead, or looking further back the early online FPS/MMO titles. “Social games” are asynchronous meaning that there is little, if any, direct communication requiring requests and leaving messages to play with other players. There are of course examples of the medium that are much more social than the more well known Zynga games, but my point is that just because a game utilises social networking, it isn’t necessarily more social than classic online games.

When you look at the collaborative and sharing aspect of social gaming there has certainly been strives forward with games such as Minecraft and Littlebigplanet, but of course making levels isn’t new. Modding and level editors have been around for as long as I can remember. I vividly remember going online, visiting sites and forums to download maps then putting up my own. Whilst you maybe don’t have some of the collaborating that you do now and the networking and interaction between players & creators wasn’t quite as strong, the framework was there.

What I’ve not touched on yet is no doubt my favoured form of social gameplay, playing with a friend. Over the years I’ve loved playing games with a few friends, from racing to fighting and FPS to puzzle games. The joy of beating your friends or being able to chat and talk whilst working together in a co-op game provides much more human interaction than any of the modern “social games” can ever provide. Surely this should be defined as social gaming?

My consoles have been the key format for this with the majority of my Dreamcast (and before that, Saturn, SNES etc) games collection boasting local multiplayer titles, many even being focused on local multiplayer. Then I look at my PS3 and Xbox 360 collection and aside from franchises spanning 10+ years, there’s very little multiplayer. There have been a few titles that have emerged, the indie market has helped somewhat, but in general the console market has changed a low. Big name single player titles such as Red Dead Redemption and online action from the likes of Call of Duty dominate the sales charts. Even racing games have moved from local multiplayer to online and in some cases, online only. I find it quite staggering and a bit of a tragedy that the local multiplayer gameplay is being sidelined

The Wii of course provided ample opportunity to change this but I don’t think that the games that came out really lived up to the potential and hopes that we had. There’s a lot of fitness based games that do open up doors into a new market but the diversity of games is rather limited. The majority of the games selling on the Wii are fitness, dance and Mario. Whether the Kinect or Playstation Move will further develop this is still to be seen but tbh, I doubt it.

Well I’ve rambled on for a while now. I’ll quickly wrap up by saying that being social in games is nothing new. Anyone who has been playing as part of clans or guilds for the past 5-10 years can tell you that. With the push to have multiplayer online for a much larger market has also lessened the attention put into games for local multiplayer. Nothing beats playing a few games with your friends all in the same room and that should never be forgotten.

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